A storm is picking up strength in Portland, and her name is Vicki Phillips.
Since her arrival in the summer of 2004, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Phillips has closed six of the district's 90 schools, put three more on the chopping block and merged nearly two dozen others. She's realigned the boundaries of additional schools in the process, transforming neighborhoods in a way that is as daring and heartbreaking as bulldozing homes and building new roads.
In November, Portland voters approved a new five-year property-tax levy. That financial shot in the arm gives the district's budget a boost beginning this year, and now Phillips is making a mad dash to spend $4 million of the district's cash on new textbooks and classroom materials. Critics say her decisions are poised to radically alter Portland Public Schools' curriculum—by dumbing down content, stripping schools of autonomy and replacing existing successful programs with wasteful, unproven alternatives.
In person, the 49-year-old Phillips speaks about her proposals with the charm of a beauty-pageant contestant and the authority of a field general, calling to mind a female version of that deposed defense secretary with a habit for answering his own questions.
"We should never forget that Portland's got some fabulous schools," Phillips says from behind a beaming smile. "If you want a good education, you can get it in Portland. The difficulty is you can't get it everywhere, and our job is to make sure you can. ... Are we making some strides to that Yes. Are we tackling some of the tough stuff in doing that Yes. Are we getting it exactly right every time No."
Phillips' willingness to take on the district's unwieldy bureaucracy and her public campaign to raise test scores has won her fans.
"She has done a remarkable job," says Gregg Kantor, executive vice president of the gas utility NW Natural and a board member of the Portland Schools Foundation, a 10-year-old fundraising and advocacy group that's a major player in the city's education circles. "She is sincerely driven by delivering our kids a better education."
And he's not the only one in a position of power to shower praise on Phillips, who boasts of having raised test scores across the district at all levels two years in a row. Says Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance: "She's decisive, she's fact-based, she's inclusive, she listens, and she's not afraid to change her mind when the facts tell her to change her mind."
She's also exactly what Portland asked for when the School Board brought Phillips here from Pennsylvania less than three years ago.
After 10 years of suffering through four Portland Public Schools superintendents who were too powerless, absent or temporary to make any meaningful progress, Phillips appeared to be the ideal super, one with the educational credentials, the moxie and the savvy to bring lasting improvements to a district struggling to balance declining enrollment with too many buildings and to close the unacceptably wide achievement gap between affluent, typically white students and their poor or minority peers.
And with the task of overseeing 47,000 students and 3,500 teachers, Phillips is arguably Portland's most powerful woman.
SUPER JOB?The average tenure for superintendents in large American cities is 4.6 years, according to a 2002 survey by the National School Boards Association. Here are Portland's superintendents over the past 15 years.
JACK BIERWIRTH 1992-1997
DIANA SNOWDEN* 1997-1998
BEN CANADA 1998-2001
JIM SCHERZINGER* 2001-2004
VICKI PHLLIPS 2004-PRESENT
Yet, a growing number of parents, teachers and employees of the district are convinced that the reforms Phillips proposes are solutions in search of problems. Meantime, her efforts obscure real troubles in the district, they say.
For one thing, an astonishing level of turnover and reorganization in Phillips' administration continues to undercut any semblance of stability.
Second, widespread heartburn lingers among community members affected by Portland's school closures, reconfigurations and—even more acutely—the redesign of Jefferson High School, Portland's only majority-black high school.
Finally, Phillips' proposal to buy new classroom materials for all schools at all grade levels threatens to incite extensive teacher opposition and distrust among large numbers of parents. Many of those same parents lobbied for the local-option levy, which includes money for materials, but now hear their children's teachers fighting what Phillips is offering.
It's easy to dismiss criticism of Phillips as inevitable resistance to change. But it now appears that the pace with which Phillips is moving threatens to erode the very credibility she was hired to restore.
This raises the question: Is Portland's much-vaunted devotion to public process going to wear her down, or is she going to blow through it to make the changes she wants?
Teachers in Portland first felt the winds pick up in August 2005 when Linda Christensen, a nationally recognized and locally respected teacher, left her job as the district's high-school curriculum specialist because she refused to implement Phillips' new writing assessment called "anchor assignments."
Derided by teachers as "anger assignments," the mandated, districtwide exercises ask students to write essays on topics selected by central-office administrators and assigns teachers to grade the essays on a scale of 1 to 4. The district collects the scores and uses them to monitor students' progress, but the scoring is entirely subjective and, teachers say, hardly a measure of students' successes and failures. Christensen's departure was a major blow to teachers who looked to her for support.
"Linda is not the canary in the coal mine, she's the eagle on the standard," says Mike Sweeney, a Portland Public Schools teacher for 30 years. "If they're not listening to Linda Christensen, they're not listening to any of us."
Phillips' war on the status quo has produced additional casualties.
Since Phillips took over the district's top post in fall 2004 with an annual salary of $203,000 (including $5,000 from the Portland Schools Foundation), her 12-member team of senior administrators has changed so drastically that, remarkably, this year's budget document doesn't even have a staff organizational chart. Of course, the highest-profile departure under Phillips' leadership precedes the current school year. In 2005, six months after landing in Portland, Phillips fired Steve Goldschmidt, the chief of human resources who, under previous superintendents Ben Canada and Jim Scherzinger, rankled the teachers' union. But an arbitrator declared Goldschmidt's firing was without cause, and the debacle ended up earning Goldschmidt a $620,000 golden parachute. For a time, it also earned Phillips the goodwill of her teachers, who saw in Phillips a leader who cared about classroom teachers.
The first in a chain reaction of departures came in 2004 when Patricia Pickles, who had been an assistant superintendent under Phillips' immediate predecessor, Scherzinger, left for a job in Texas only four months after Phillips' arrival. And Maxine Kilcrease, director of the Office of Student, School and Family Support, left in the summer of 2006.
Some of Phillips' own hires have also left or changed jobs under her leadership. Susan Enfield, who earned $117,000 a year as director of teaching and learning, followed Phillips from Pennsylvania, where they had previously worked together in the state's education department. But Enfield left in the summer of 2006, less than two years after taking the job, and her position, which is now advertised at $132,000 a year, remains open. Enfield now works for the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Wash. She did not return phone calls.
Lynne Shlom-Ferguson was plucked from her job as the principal of Arleta Elementary School to be the district's director of early and elementary education in August 2005. She remained on that job for only about three months before returning to Arleta in Southeast Portland—for reasons that have nothing to do with the district, she says.
The changes have trickled down to middle management, too. And several people inside the central office told WW that Phillips is ultimately responsible for the departures of these lower-level employees, saying the office at 501 N Dixon St. has become meaner and colder under her leadership.
And even beyond the 1980s hulk of pink concrete that houses the district's central office, the ripple effects of the superintendent's command have ousted longtime employees. Carla Randall, a seven-year employee of the district who had been principal at Wilson High School, left less than one year after Phillips arrived. She now works for Tigard-Tualatin School District as a director of curriculum and instruction and would not comment on her reasons for leaving
As new faces replace old ones inside the district's central offices, the changes continue on the outside, too.
Cynthia Guyer, one of Portland's strongest supporters of public education, announced in December her departure from the Portland Schools Foundation after helping to found the group a decade ago. Influential in bringing Phillips to Portland, Guyer has served as a second center of gravity for schools in the city, and her retirement leaves the powerful institution's role in question.
In the meantime, four seats on Portland Public Schools' seven-member Board of Education are up this May. Two incumbents, Dilafruz Williams and Bobbie Regan, have announced their intention to run again, though all are expected to seek re-election. Four years ago, when 24 people were fighting for those same four seats, the candidates spent tens of thousands of dollars on their campaigns for the volunteer board. Except for Williams, the incumbents—Doug Morgan, David Wynde and Regan—are widely viewed as reliable supporters of Phillips' policies.
Of all the reforms Phillips has proposed, none illustrates the blunt force of her style better than the redesign at Jefferson High School. Jefferson, a frequent target in the history of the district for hit-and-run improvements and media attention, is one of the schools Phillips was hired to lift out of spiraling decline.
In March 2005, Phillips announced a plan to merge middle-school students with ninth- through 12th-graders in the Jefferson cluster, setting off a firestorm of protest from parents who strongly objected to the idea. Despite this, Phillips put the proposal before School Board members, who ultimately forced her to table the decision.
"People tried to tell her many times that she needed to rethink that and create a community process, and she wouldn't back down," says Vanessa Gaston, the president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Portland until July 2006. "When she makes up her mind, that's it—there's no changing it."
Since then, a revolving door has greeted and spit out a succession of Jefferson administrators. And efforts to boost student achievement and enrollment figures—a failed student-uniform policy, a doomed alternative school within the school, small schools and new academies for boys and girls—have provoked skepticism among some community members and alienated others.
What's different about this unhappiness from past battles over Jefferson is that real reform seems possible under Phillips. But her efforts to engage families still fall short.
"It's one thing to know the numbers and the data," says Charles McGee, the 21-year-old executive director of the nonprofit Black Parent Initiative and a School Board candidate in 2005. "It's another thing to know the numbers, the data and the people."
To be fair, Phillips did not create the problems and distrust of the district at Jefferson. But she came to Portland charged with making progress there, and on the first day of school this fall she was standing in the halls of Jefferson as students filed in, clapping her hands and chanting, "We care ABOUT YOU, we CARE about you," along with other administrators and teachers.
As evidence of her commitment, Jefferson now enjoys the highest per-student spending of all the district's 10 high schools. But Phillips' changes at the school have not yet impressed everyone.
"What she says and what she does are sometimes different, and she still doesn't get Portland," says Fred Jackson, a retired Benson High School principal who continues to be active in the Jefferson community. "I think she means well, but her message is
distorted by how she delivers it. "
Of course, the same criticism could be made of Phillips' efforts last spring to close schools and merge nearly two dozen others, a move that provoked middle-class and affluent parents to threaten the district's worst nightmare—pulling their kids out of Portland Public Schools for the suburbs or private schools.
City Commissioner Erik Sten believed the threat was a real one, and he was public in his support for additional deliberation. "The pace at which they were moving had the potential to lose people who might otherwise support the changes," Sten says now.
Phillips, for her part, says, "I think we've made a lot of progress, but I think like any leader you always look around and say, 'Oh, I could have done that differently' or 'Gee, I might have made that adjustment there.'"
She notes the budget woes she inherited, which made closing schools tough but necessary for the long-run stability of the district. "There's always room for improvement. I'm somebody that always believes that you reassess what you're doing and say, 'What can I do more of, better, differently the next time '"
If Linda Christensen's departure from the district's central office in 2005 signaled the winds in Portland were accelerating, the temperature of those winds now appear to be heating up.
At the eye of the latest storm is Phillips' proposal to equip all schools with the same books, workbooks and teacher materials. The effort, Phillips says, aims to even conditions in Portland's schools. And she's hoping to put it before the board soon—before the May School Board election.
But while Phillips is flying at 10,000 feet, working to convince community members that reworking the district's curriculum across all schools is best for helping struggling students, teachers are crying foul about the plan's details. In addition to adopting new course materials, Phillips is hoping to realign course offerings and create uniformity in a district that has nurtured variations in classrooms for years.
"What we intend is enough guidance to be sure that kids are getting common outcomes but by no means to tie teachers' hands," Phillips says. "Every teacher I talk to likes having additional, new kinds of materials to work from. I think there's a great deal of miscommunication out there about how we intend and see those materials used in schools."
Many teachers, however, say that the district's resources could be better spent focusing on underperforming schools. What Phillips proposes, instead, is to implement the same changes at all schools, regardless of gains schools have made under other programs. She's not evening the playing field, teachers say; she's leveling it. And they say she's doing so at great cost not just to taxpayers but to student learning, too.
What distinguishes teachers' complaints now from what observers might characterize as typical union moaning is the strength of their conviction that what's about to happen is not good for kids. It's the equivalent, they say, of imposing the same menu on a host of restaurants equipped to prepare different meals, for different clients with different tastes.
Hyung Nam, a social studies teacher for seven years at Wilson High School, points to one modern world history textbook currently under consideration by the district as an example of the inadequacy of Phillips' current proposal. The book contains less than two pages of text on South African apartheid, although Nam's global studies class spends four weeks on the topic. "Nothing I teach is this kind of drive-by, six-paragraph thing," he says.
School Board member Sonja Henning says Phillips' approach to the materials adoption mirrors the haste of her past actions. "I don't believe that the superintendent is handling this issue any differently than she's handled other issues in the past," Henning says. "We're all creatures of habit."
No one says teachers don't need new classroom tools. But Marta Guembes, a mother of four originally from Guatemala, worries that a focus on materials will come at the expense of hiring an
d retaining certified teachers for the district's courses in English as a second language. "The materials are not going to save our children, if the materials are not in the right hands," Guembes says.
Also unhappy is Maika Yeigh, a parent and adjunct instructor at Lewis & Clark's Graduate School of Education and Counseling. Yeigh, a community member serving on the committee to evaluate the proposed reading programs, says the materials under consideration to teach Portland's youngest kids to read are simply poor choices; they don't help teachers address the range of student needs in any given classroom. What's more, she points out that the committee chosen by the district to evaluate the programs is allowed only to consider research that has been put out by the publishers of those same programs.
Parents also are complaining to School Board members.
"They're about to make an enormous decision without any information," says Corriedawn Greiling-Fritsch, PTA president at Cleveland High School. "They don't know what they're about to lose and what's about to be implemented."
Board member Wynde defends Phillips, as does co-chair Dan Ryan, who says there's no excuse for not examining Phillips' proposal. As the only board member to graduate from a Portland high school, in 1980, Ryan says he experienced firsthand the inequities built into Portland schools, like his alma mater Roosevelt High School. "I really like the idea of a core curriculum to ensure that what happened to me doesn't happen again," Ryan says. "Not exploring it is not OK."
Trouble is, many teachers, from Lincoln High School to Lent Elementary School, don't have confidence that the impending changes will deliver the promised improvements to teaching and learning. "Equity doesn't come from a textbook," says Lynne Allers, a social studies teacher at Cleveland High School.
Many now are left wondering if Phillips actually hears the teachers' concerns. She says she's listening.
"What we're trying to do is get better at the kind of processes...that really give people true voice and balance that with the urgency to move some decisions to get to the outcomes that I think we all know we want," Phillips says. "I think this city is an amazing place; I don't begrudge the public process at all. I think it's a good thing. We're trying to get better at it."
But educators like Andrew Kulak, a ninth- and 10th-grade English teacher at Jefferson, worries about the proposed changes anyway. Kulak says good decisions about running classrooms do not come from above, where administrators do not know the students' names, families or interests.
"The wisdom always resides in the room," Kulak says. "That's where effective teaching happens."
JUSTIN MARTIN earns $8,000 a month to lobby for Portland schools.
Portland Public Schools' lobbyist in Salem again this session is Justin Martin, who also represents the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.
The choice is significant because the perennially cash-strapped district has chosen as its representative a man who orchestrated the spending of $410,000 in a failed bid to defeat Gov. Ted Kulongoski in last May's Democratic primary.
The Grand Ronde spent its money against Kulongoski when the governor was trying to pass a measure in the legislative special session last spring to grant Portland's school district the power to assess extra property taxes—known as a gap bond.
At the same time, Martin and the Grand Ronde were running TV ads critical of the governor.
Martin, who was trying to put pressure from the Grand Ronde on Kulongoski to back off his earlier support for the Warm Springs tribe's plan to build a rival casino in the Columbia River Gorge, was snubbed by the governor's office when it came time to talk about schools. Martin did meet with members of the governor's staff, however.
The measure, which raised $15 million for Portland Public Schools, was eventually passed in the special session. But several advocates for the school district who were in Salem at the time say that a combination of external factors secured the bond's passage; Martin, in other words, was of little help.
After the special session, several people told Portland Schools Superintendent Vicki Phillips that Martin was persona non grata with the governor and his supporters.
Phillips, a Salem neophyte, has nonetheless retained Martin as the district's $8,000-a-month lobbyist for the 2007 Legislature. A source close to Phillips says the governor explicitly told her that he harbored no hard feelings toward the district or Martin.
Kulongoski spokeswoman Anna Richter Taylor, however, says the governor does not recall ever having had that conversation.
"We as a district differentiate between his work for us—and that's what we judge his performance on—versus what he is doing for another client," says Phillips, who is a registered Democrat. "We have been in enough communication to know that the governor's office is capable of separating out those things and believe that that is not impairing our direct relationship with the governor." —Beth Slovic